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More Research, Input Needed on Coal Ash Relocation, Activists Say

Toxic coal ash sits in two ponds at the Allen Fossil Plant
Cameron Rutt
Toxic coal ash sits in two ponds at the Allen Fossil Plant

A group of environmental organizations are asking for further assessment of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to dispose of toxic coal ash at the South Shelby Landfill near the Mississippi border.

They argue the decision, which is part of TVA’s cleanup of the old Allen Fossil Plant in South Memphis, was made without a complete, site-specific environmental analysis and that the agency neglected to adequately gather input from communities that would be most affected by the transport of the ash.  

“TVA’s decision will impose nearly a decade of additional traffic, noise, air pollution, and public safety impacts on predominantly Black, low-wealth communities in South Memphis that already bear more than their fair share of environmental burdens,” a letter sent to the federal utility on Tuesday reads.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, as well as several local activist groups, including Protect Our Aquifer signed on to the correspondence.

When the coal-burning fossil plant closed down operations in 2018, it left two ponds full of 3.5 million cubic yards of arsenic-laced ash. TVA’s restoration of the site calls for the hazardous waste to be hauled away and stored long-term at a specialized landfill.

Environmental groups support the ash’s removal, but Amanda Garcia with the Law Center says TVA’s 2020 environmental impact study that examines relocating the ash was completed prior to the selection of South Shelby Landfill.

“It’s rife with phrases like depending on the landfill selected, there might be X, Y and Z impacts,” she says.

AlthoughTVA said it was deciding between a landfill in Mississippi and the South Shelby site at the end of 2020, the agency onlyannounced to the Memphis City Council this summer that it had selected the Memphis option and that it would be trucking the ash there.

Garcia says because the landfill choice and transportation mode wasn’t finalized until recently, those along the route haven’t had a meaningful chance to provide feedback. She’s calling on TVA to consider other alternatives.

“You need to involve the public on the front end in order to get their input to make sure that the decision you are making is in the best interest of the community and takes those concerns and needs into account,” she says.

A spokesperson said via email that TVA is still reviewing the letter, but that the agency conducted a “thorough public environmental review process over the last five years with more than 40 public meetings where we listened to the community we are privileged to serve.”

The statement adds that the South Shelby Landfill is located in a primarily industrial area, and its operators prioritize safety and environmental stewardship.

In a virtual town hall held earlier this month, a TVA official said major thoroughfares such as I-40, I-55, Shelby Drive and Malone Road will be used for the almost 20-mile trip from the plant to the landfill.

Memphis City Council members have also rebuked the storage of coal ash at the South Shelby landfill.